Meaty Tamal Casserole

Make It, Freeze It, Take It: The Mexican Casserole

AztecCasseroleChicken

Every few months, my family gets together with a Latin group of friends and their families for a pot luck.

This winter it was our turn. As tradition goes, the host brings the main dishes to the table and the others bring the rest. I eagerly announced my plans to share Mexican casseroles, also called cazuelas, budines or pasteles. The Mexicans couldn’t hide their joy- “Pati! De veras? Budin Azteca? Cazuela de Tamal?!”- and quickly thought of other “very” Mexican sides to pair with them. The Argentines and Costa Ricans tried to understand what “Mexican casserole” meant and whether it was supposed to be any good. The Americans in the group (though they consider themselves Latin) were clearly not excited about it.

No doubt about it, casseroles have had their ups and downs in culinary history. Their weakest stand seems to have been in the United States, after being fashioned into “two-step-many-can” versions in the 1930 and ’40s. But think of all the bright stars in the casserole universe: French cocottes enveloped in mother sauces; British potpies encrusting fillings as wet as British weather; irresistible Italian lasagnas layered with pasta; Peruvian causas with seasoned meat encased in mashed potatos; Greek spanakopitas with an extra-savory cheese-spinach mix covered with phyllo dough; Middle Eastern moussakas stacked with layers of eggplant; and the not-so-well-known, yet gloriously tasty Mexican cazuelas…

All of those casseroles are assembled, baked and served in the same vessel, which makes them convenient, practical and savvy. They are cooked tightly covered without a hurry, giving their fillings time to become succulent with fully blended flavors. Then their messy beauty unravels on your plate. One has to wonder: Why don’t we see more of them around, when we all crave flexible meals that can be made in advance?

In the Old World, casseroles’ prestige may have peaked in the early Renaissance.They were served at royal feasts, with artful decorations fit for competitions and complex fillings; some even had live birds fly out of them with an exhilarating song as the first piece was cut. Such a high-pitched recipe is found in the first British cookbook published during the mid-16th century. It also was recorded as part of one of the most extravagant banquets ever: the wedding of Marie de Medici and Henry IV of France, held in 1600 in Florence. This theatrical dish might have inspired the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” in which “four and twenty blackbirds” are baked in a pie.

Fast-forward to 2009: British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal felt obliged to replicate it in his Medieval episode of “Heston’s Feasts” in England.

Surprisingly, I recently found the nursery rhyme’s muse of a pie in the anonymous 1831 Mexican cookbook “El Cocinero Mexicano.” I am always amazed at how ingredients and recipes hop around the globe. But this I found to be absurdly funny: As if Mexican cooks needed any more outrageous ideas of what to do with casseroles.

Centuries before Old World cooks were trying to impress guests with interactive creations, Mexicans were baking casseroles in underground pits and cooking them over rustic fires. The fillings might not have been able to take flight, but they did contain wild turkey, boar and/ or iguana.

The first version of a Mexican casserole seems to have been the muk-bil (literally, “to put in the ground”). Made by the Mayans on the Yucatan Peninsula since pre-Hispanic times, it is the King Kong of tamales. Truly gigantic. The corn dough wraps around a filling of turkey (after the Spanish arrived, chicken and pork were used as well) rubbed with a pungent paste seasoned with achiote (annatto) seeds, spices and tomatoes. It resembles the flavors of cochinita pibil, a robust Yucatan dish.

So prized was this tamal in ancient times that it was designated meal for major festivities, and it still is. You can bet there will be a lot of muk-bils made this year with all the talk of 2012 marking the end of the Mayan calendar. So it is the right time to head down there if you want a true taste.

This tamal is traditionally wrapped in fragrant banana leaves and baked underground, which gives it a smoky flavor.

Other tamal casseroles throughout Mexico have regional spins, ingredients and salsas. Just across the border in neighboring American states, tamal pie recipes appeared in cookbooks at least a hundred years ago. They called for cornmeal rather than fresh corn masa; the former leads to a much grainier and less fluffy result. That was probably because making masa from scratch involves the ancient nixtamalization process, which takes days (drying, soaking, cooking and grinding) to treat corn so that its nutritious content is fully exploited. It makes a masa so soft that it is practically airy. Today, outstanding instant masa flour that has already gone through that process is widely available, so it’s a snap to put together a real tamal casserole at home.

Here my go-to version: The masa dough is set in two thick layers that hold a rich and baroque filling, typical of the Mexican colonial era, when nuns used to combine Spanish and Mexican ingredients in their convent kitchens. The filling has a sauce made with my preferred pairing of dried chili peppers: sweet, almost chocolaty and prune-flavored ancho and mild, bright-tasting guajillo. It’s seasoned with onion, garlic, oregano, cloves, cinnamon and a pinch of cumin, then made hearty with juicy ground meat that is sprinkled with crunchy almonds, chewy raisins and salty manzanilla olives.

Just like a tamal casserole is a giant version of a tamal, a tortilla casserole is like a hefty stack of open-face tacos with layers of sauce and cheese. It’s a homespun version of tacos, one of the most sought-after street foods in my native country: Taco elements are layered in a cazuela, or earthenware pot. That takes away the hassle of making individual portions and allows for endless filling possibilites, just as with tacos and tamales.

The most popular casserole of them all has an imperial name: Aztec. It is traditionally made with corn tortillas, as they are much more resilient than flour tortillas. Think of a lasagna gone way down south, soaked in a spiced-up tomato sauce with handfuls of exuberant, fruity, addictive roasted poblano peppers and crunchy, sweet corn. Chicken is sometimes added to the mix, which is then bathed with Mexican crema and melty cheese. When I was growing up, and Aztec casserole was a must for successful potlucks.

Some versions use salsa verde or mole sauce instead of a tomato sauce, as well as other kinds of meats and vegetables. Good-quality corn tortillas can be found at the market, so there’s no need to make your own.

The rice casserole is the most modern of the three I’ve offered here. Brought over from Europe by the Spanish, rice has grown deep roots in Mexican cooking. The dish I have been obsessively repeating came about because I wanted to use the bounty of fresh mushrooms found in stores this time of year. Although I don’t have the wild varieties that crop up in Mexico’s rainy season, I have experimented with an accessible mix of mushroom textures and flavors, fresh herbs, epazote, cilantro, parsley, that salty crema and tangy cheese. This stew goes on top of the rice with a topping of grated dry and aged cheese. As the casserole bakes, the rice absorbs the flavored cream, the mushrooms meld with the sauce and the cheese morphs into a perfectly browned crust.

I’m wondering whether Mexican renditions can lend a bit of prestige to the state of casseroles in the United States. They certainly receive a royal welcome from my potluck friends, who heap seconds on their plates.

Article written for and published by The Washington Post. Photo taken by Deb Lindsey Photography www.deblindsey.com.

Mushroom and Rice Casserole

Cazuela de Arroz con Hongos

Recipe Yield

8 servings

Cooking time

2 hours 15 minutes

Rate this recipe

5 from 1 vote

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter plus more for the baking dish
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 medium white onions chopped (2 cups)
  • 2 cloves garlic minced or put through a garlic press
  • 1 jalapeño or serrano pepper finely chopped (seeding optional if you want less heat; may add more to taste)
  • 2 pounds mixed mushrooms (such as white button, baby bella, portobello and shitake), cleaned, dry part of stem removed, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt or more to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves and thin part of stems
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves and thin part of stems
  • 1 cup Mexican cream or Latin-style cream, or heavy cream
  • 8 ounces (about 2 cups) farmers cheese or queso fresco crumbled
  • 6 cups cooked Mahatma® Rice white rice
  • 1 cup freshly grated queso anejo Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Romano

To Prepare

  • Heat the butter and oil in a large, deep 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and stir to coat; cook for about 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they are translucent and the edges begin to brown. Add the garlic and jalapeño or serrano pepper; cook for 2-3 minutes, until softened. Add all of the sliced mushrooms; sprinkle with salt and pepper, and gently combine with the onions. Cover and cook for 5 to 6 minutes, until the mushrooms have exuded their juices and the flavors have melded. Uncover and cook for 7 to 8 minutes or until the juices have evaporated.
  • Add the cilantro and parsley, stirring to combine. Add the cream and the crumbled queso fresco or farmer cheese; stir until the mixture is thoroughly combined and the cheese has melted. Continue cooking for 3 to 4 minutes, adjusting the heat to keep the mixture barely bubbling at the edges. It should still be very saucy. Turn off the heat.
  • Preheat the oven to 375°F. Use a little butter to grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or the equivalent.
  • Spoon the cooked rice into the baking dish and level it out without pressing down hard. Pour the mushroom-cilantro mixture on top and gently spread to level it. Sprinkle with the grated cheese. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the cheese has melted and gently browned.
  • Serve hot.

Comments

43comments inMake It, Freeze It, Take It: The Mexican Casserole

  1. Olga Stack

    Feb 05

    Patty,
    I have followed you for years. Your recipes are fabolous. You represent Mexico before the world, as it should be, with pride. I have travel abroad and your cousin is known and recognized in almost every country I have been. Thank you for being our best ambassador!!. I am from Chihuahua, Ajua!!

    1. Pati Jinich

      Feb 10

      Thanks so much for the kind words Olga 🙂

  2. Nora Garcia

    Aug 22

    Which cookbook has Season 8 rdd Ed copes. Potato hash
    Puff pastry

    1. Pati Jinich

      Aug 26

      Hi Nora, the recipes from Season 8 are not in any of the Cookbooks because it premiered last year and the newest book is from 2016. However I am working on the third one and lots of recipes will be in this one.

  3. Kendahl

    Jun 13

    Hi Pati, I’m planning on making some of these to have in the freezer for easy meals when our next baby comes next week! Should they be frozen before baking, or after? And do you have an estimate for how long they would need to be in the oven/at what temperature after freezing? Thanks so much!

    1. Pati Jinich

      Jun 21

      First bake, then freeze Kendahl. When ready to eat, set your oven at 350F and check it every ten minutes until heated through. Is the baby here? Congratulations!!!!!

  4. Meg McAlister

    Jun 28

    Hi, Pati. I’m going to make your deep-dish cheese and poblano pie with avocado cream and pistachios for small party tonight but have a question about how much cheese to use. The recipe is on page 187 of your “Mexican Today” cookbook and it lists 8 ounces of cheese twice. I’m going to assume it is a typo or editing error and use only 8 ounces when I make it this afternoon because I don’t see any instructions for the second 8 ounces.

    When is your new cookbook coming out? I can’t wait to get it! I so love your recipes for Mexican cuisine.

    1. Pati Jinich

      Jul 03

      There should be 16 ounces of cheese in the recipe, 8 ounces of Oaxaca Cheese or Mozzarella and 8 ounces of Monterrey jack, muenster, Mexican manchego or Chihuahua. Enjoy! And my new book will be out hopefully next year or the year after….

  5. Isabel B. Perez

    May 24

    Hi Patty ,
    Do you have the recipe of Pastel Azteca with green chili sauce ( tomatillos) ? a friend of mine is asking for it , and I thought of you, because you cook a wonderful and delicious mexican food.

    1. Pati Jinich

      May 29

      Aw thank you, Isabel! She can use the recipe here but with my salsa verde sauce: https://patijinich.com/pati_2020/salsa-verde/

  6. Margarita

    Oct 29

    The food in this picture looks amazing but have no idea what casserole it is.

    1. Pati

      Oct 30

      That’s a picture of my Meaty Tamal Casserole. The recipe is lower on the page. Enjoy, Margarita!

  7. silvia

    Dec 10

    re comment on october 5, 1015. Patti simply stated that you can sub lard with olive or coconut oil and that you can flavor the oils by using sauteed garlic and onion. hope that helps.

  8. Tim

    Oct 06

    Hi Pati
    I don’t speak Spanish. Do you have an English version or translator for your comments?
    Thanks,
    Tim

  9. doracruz cordua

    Oct 05

    me encantaria una receta para hacer la masa de tamal con aceite de canola o otro buen aceite. muchas gracias. hasta pronto. doracruz

    1. Pati

      Oct 06

      Hola Dora! Puedes usar mi misma receta per en vez de manteca usas aceite vegetal o aceite de coco! Puedes sazonar el aceite antes dorando un par de dientes de ajo y un pedazo de cebolla hasta que se dore…

  10. Tim

    Aug 02

    Hi Pati
    I just recently started watching your show on Create and love your food!
    I’m looking forward to trying many of your recipes.
    Tim M.

    1. Pati

      Aug 03

      Thank you, Tim, I do hope you try many!

  11. j.monson

    May 17

    Yummmmm. Your show is a delight to watch. Love cooking myself. Am always interested in splendid food. Your family is very fortunate to have such a creative, cheery, mom and wife !

    1. Pati

      May 22

      Thank you so much! You made me smile.

  12. Joyce Mrzlock

    Feb 12

    Hi I made this and it is wonderful. I just love it

    1. Pati

      Feb 12

      Yay! Thank you for trying it!!

  13. irene vazquez

    Dec 12

    My Nana was from Aconchi, Sonora…en las sierras de Hermosillo. She taught my mom and my mom taught me how to make tamales. We use dried California chile pods for flavor and dried New Mexico for the heat. Equal halves of each makes a nice blend not too “hot”. We put in a black olive. we add the broth of the meat to the masa (the essence of flavor is there) and we also add chile to the masa so our tamales are always tinted in a reddish color and oh, so tasty. My oldest daughter has lived in the DC area for years and makes her tamales with Pasilla because I believe the New Mexico ewas not always available, but the tradition continues into the third generation in our familia. Thanks for sharing your stories & Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad y, Felicidades!

  14. Melody Sciortino

    Sep 06

    Pati,
    I absolutely LOVE YOU AND YOUR SHOW! You are such an inspiration to me! I love your passion and how you are true to who you are. I have two very small children and love watching you with your 3 boys. I love learning about your family and culture. I also LOVE Mexican food and am so thankful for the recipes. I have already tried many of them. Just wanted to say thanks and tell you what an inspiration you are! Today I am actually comparing the casserole with rice and the one with corn tortillas and chicken and getting my ingredient list together. I think I’m going to doo the one with rice and add chicken. P.S. if you are ever in Louisiana for anything, I’d love to check it out.

    1. Pati

      Sep 12

      Gracias, Melody! Thank you for watching & so happy to hear you are using the recipes!!

  15. Brenda Hensley

    Jul 21

    Hola Pati,

    I love to watch you on Create. I used to catch you quite often in my regular home schedule but it seems I haven’t seen your show for the last week or so on Create. Has the scheduling changed for that network lately or am I just missing it? I see your show still advertised during their programming. You have such a great personality it seems, like someone we would all enjoy being friends with. That’s it! You’re like a friend I haven’t met yet. Thanks

    1. Pati

      Jul 21

      Hola Brenda, Thank you so much for your lovely message! I’m so happy you like my show. You can check to see when I’m on Create in your area here: http://bit.ly/1iBIvSX

  16. Kathy

    Dec 28

    I love the Meaty Tamal Casserole recipe but don’t see the ingredients of oregano, cloves, cinnamon and cumin listed in the ingredients but they are listed in the instructions. Can you send them to me or add them to the ingredient list? Thanks!

    1. Pati

      Dec 30

      Hola Kathy, Here are the amounts:

      1 teaspoon dried oregano
      5 whole cloves
      1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
      Ground cumin

      I hope you try it! 🙂

  17. sandra conrad

    Oct 09

    Patti: I’ve been cooking mexican food for about 20 years and believe I know most of the complicated and time consuming interacasies of the food linked to my heritage.I write this with the up most gratitude in that in today’s “Male Discriminatory Mexican Top Chef It’s Not What You Know But Who You Know” society” you are a much needed breath of fresh air. Not to mention your lean towards cutting time in your recipes cause most women less work .Pleeease keep up the good work.We need you.

    1. Pati

      Oct 09

      Thank you for such a lovely comment, Sandra. I really appreciate it!

  18. Gayle

    Apr 01

    Hi Pati, I recently saw your show on which you made a casserole with poblanos, torillas, corn, salsa, crema , cheese, etc. It sounded delicious, and I have just been given some beautiful poblanos. I would love to make that dish. Can you help me out, please. Gracias, Gayle M.

    1. Pati

      Apr 01

      Of course!! Here is the casserole recipe you are looking for: http://patijinich.com/pati_2020/2011/04/white_rice_and_poblano_rajas_casserole/

  19. Kristen

    Jan 09

    Hola Pati,

    My husband and I find you simply delightful! Thank you for following your heart and sharing your love for Mexican food.
    I recently bought some poblano peppers for the first time after watching your show… any suggestions for an easy first recipe? Also, is your cookbook available in stores now? If not, when?

    Gracias! Kristen

    1. Pati Jinich

      Jan 09

      Hola Kristen, Try my creamy poblano soup: http://patijinich.com/pati_2020/2012/05/creamy_poblano_soup/. I’m thrilled to hear you are interested in the cookbook!! It will be in stores in March, however you can find information about pre-ordering it here: http://patijinich.com/pati_2020/book/.

      1. Kristen

        Jan 12

        Hi Pati,

        I learned two things after making the creamy poblano soup- poblanos are hot- to taste and to feel- my hands were burning all night. I watched your show with them in a bowl of cold water.
        I guess shouldn’t of touched the seeds. Still glad I tried it though.
        Thanks for the information about your book- I will look for it in March.
        Kristen

  20. Ellen Olivier

    Jan 02

    Love your show on Create TV!! Can you send me your chocolate swirl pouncake?? Thanks again for your delightful show!! Ellen

    1. Pati Jinich

      Jan 03

      Hola Ellen, Thank you so much for watching!! Here is the recipe for the Marbled Pound Cake: http://patijinich.com/pati_2020/2012/10/alisas-marbled-pound-cake.html. I hope you’ll try it!

  21. Beverly Gray

    Dec 29

    I absolutely love your shows! I just watched Tacos, tacos,tacos today and have wonderful plans for tomorrow. Thank you!!!

  22. Joann Davidson

    Dec 15

    Hi there, I just saw last half of your program! I love it. I went right to your wonderful website. I added it to my IPad! It is great with recipes you share. Thank you so much. I copied the sweet potatoes and casseroles you have! We will be cooking up a storm around here! This is the best site I have found. Buenos and I will impress my friends and give you the credit. Thanks so much! Johere

    1. Pati Jinich

      Dec 19

      Joann, I am so excited to hear you are planning to try several of my recipes!! I hope your friends enjoy them. Thank you so much for taking the time to let me know you found the show and the website!! I hope you will continue to find the recipes and information interesting…

      1. Cynthia

        May 26

        Hi Patti,
        Love your book. With the tamal cazuela, can you use pre made masa? We have several Latin markets here that make masa for corn tortillas every day. Thanks.

        1. Pati

          May 27

          Yes you can!!! That makes it even easier…

  23. Mark Vann Photography

    Dec 09

    The meaty tamale casserole recipe instructions say ” Transfer the peppers and 2 cups of the liquid to a blender and add the oregano, cloves, cinnamon and cumin ” but I don’t see cinnamon and cloves in the ingredient list. Can you help me out with the amounts of cinnamon and clove?

  24. Sara Coles

    Feb 15

    Hi Pati, thanks for reposting this. I was wondering what happened to the recipes but fortunately I found them at washingtonpost.com. They sound yummy. Sara

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